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Bring on the pancakes

The verb to shrive is one I’ve never given much thought to, but when asked by a Hungarian friend to explain the origins of Shrove Tuesday, I had to do some digging. My simple explanation – it’s the last day of gorging ourselves before we start fasting for the 40 days of Lent, the period leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday – wasn’t enough. They were more concerned with the word shrove.

The verb, to shrive, means to hear the confession of, assign penance to, and absolve or to present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution. And yes, typically, we’d go to confession on Shrove Tuesday so that we could ready ourselves for Lent with a clean soul (am sure we used to go from the school to 10 am mass in the morning). So it makes sense. But from a practical standpoint, it’s about clearing your fridge of the stuff you won’t be eating while fasting: eggs, milk, sugar, and salt – and in my case, butter. Lots of butter. I can’t have pancakes without slathering them in butter. Not for me the prim and proper sugar and lemon or the indulgent maple syrup or jam – I’m all for the fat. Butter all the way.

But there’s a twist on the ingredients, which are said, in some circles, to represent the four pillars of Christian faith. Creation (eggs), sustenance (flour), wholesomeness (salt) and purity (milk). Mind you, I’d always thought the four pillars of faith were profession (the Creed), mystery (the Sacraments), morality (the Commandments), and prayer. But there you have it.

It the States, it’s Fat Tuesday, from the French Mardi Gras. Think carnival time, partying, the last hurrah. The Italian martedì grasso, and the Portuguese terça-feira gorda, go with that, too, while the German Fastnacht and the Dutch Vastenavond (eve of the fast) are thinking in terms of the fast about to begin. In Irish, today is known as Máirt na hInide (Shrove Tuesday), or  Lá na bPancóg (Pancake day) but mostly we call it Pancake Tuesday.

It was the one day of the year when I’d know for certain, that when I came home from school, there’d be pancakes. Later on, when I could see over the cooker, I even got to try my hand at flipping them. Superstition had it that if you tossed a pancake and it fell flat on the pan, you’d be standing before the priest by the end of the year – with a man at your side. I could never get the hang of it, which probably explains a lot. I read somewhere that back in 1563, a papal decree prohibited marriage during Lent so Shrove Tuesday was the last marrying day for 40 days – maybe weekday weddings were all the rage back then.

No doubt in houses around the country today, the batter is being whisked and the debate over fat or thin rages. My preference has always been for small and fat rather than the Hungarian palacsinta, a thin crêpe-like pancake which cries out to be filled with some sort of something. There’s a 24-hour palacsinta place I’ve been known to visit occasionally after a night bath at Rudas, but the menu is way too extensive and the pressure of choice negates the relaxed feeling induced by the thermal waters.

Did you know that a 2009 movie called Shrove Tuesday: The legend of Pancake Marion won a host of awards:  Best British Film at Horror UK’s 28 Hours Later film festival, Best Experimental Short at South Africa’s Horror Fest V, and Best Mythic Film at Vampire Film Festival, New Orleans. But I doubt you’d have much of an appetite left after watching it.

As to the history of pancakes, according to the Unofficial Happy History of Pancakes 

600 BC – The first recorded mention of pancakes dates back to ancient Greece and comes from a poet who described warm pancakes in one of his writings. 1100 AD – Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) becomes a traditional way to use up dairy products before lent – the pancake breakfast is born.

And, as for preferences, according to an article in National Geographic

The ancient Greeks and Romans ate pancakes sweetened with honey; the Elizabethans ate them flavored with spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples.

Making them is as easy as 1, 2, 3:

  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 300ml milk

Put the flour, eggs, milk, 1 tbsp oil and a pinch of salt into a bowl or large jug, then whisk to a smooth batter. Set a medium frying pan or crêpe pan over a medium heat and carefully wipe it with some oiled kitchen paper. Pour to desired size/thickness. Toss. Serve. Dress according to your preference. And whatever your preference, enjoy.

 

Eternal rest?

I’ve heard tell that Muslims are buried standing up. And the Muslim cemeteries I have been to would suggest the same. I did some digging and while there’s a wealth of information available on various websites and blogs, it is often contradictory.

IMG_4329 (800x600)From what I can gather, as soon as you die,  your eyes are closed, your jaw is bound, and you’re covered with a sheet. It’s a quick burial – before the next sunset or within 24 hours (and I thought the Irish were quick about it). The body should face Mecca – or the head at least – and some say that a copy of the Koran should be put under your head (not sure how this would happen though, if you’re standing up).

Hidaad (mourning) for a family member lasts for just three days. No unwanton display of emotion is permitted as it might disturb the dead. Irish banshees and caoiners (professional wailers) would be out of business. Women who have been widowed though have an extended period of mourning – Iddah (or Edda) – which lasts 4 months and 10 days. During this time, the woman can’t wear perfume or jewelry, can’t remarry, and has to sleep at home each night, only leaving the house to go to work or run errands.

IMG_4330 (800x600)Irish Catholic funerals are more for the living than for the dead. I’ve been to funerals of people I’ve never met, but I knew their sons, daughters, sisters, whatever. At a Muslim funeral, men face Mecca in the front row, then children line up in the second, and then the women. I’ve said before that if there’s a feminist streak in me, it wouldn’t cut butter on a hot day, but still this is something I think I would have difficulty with. The entire service takes place standing and a significant part of it is silent.

IMG_4325 (800x600)There are lots of variations on the above, depending on what you read and where. What’s interesting for me though, is the standing part. I know my soul will leave my body when I die and that my body couldn’t care less what position it’s in, but enough Irish folklore has seeped into my blood for me to still balk at the idea of standing upright for eternity.

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For the most part, graves are above the ground and there’s a marked absence of flowers and candles. I wonder what Muslims in Hawaii do, given the locals’ penchant for decoration? In the province of Istanbul, there are 333 cemeteries, apparently, of which 268 are Muslim. The one I happened across was rather small and as I couldn’t make head nor tail of the dates, I have no idea of its age. Even with the complete lack of adornments (and perhaps because of same) it was rather beautiful.

I have no idea of the name either. The sign on the wall outside said ‘Türk Ocağı İstanbul Şubesi’, which according to Google Translate means ‘Turkey, Istanbul Branch in January‘. But I’m sure it was a cemetery….

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